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Multidirectional narratives: Diversifying the English and history curriculums

7 min read
SHILPA DARBAR, HEAD OF HISTORY, ST ALBANS HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, UK
 ALEXANDRA GREENFIELD, HEAD OF ENGLISH, ST ALBANS HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, UK

The selection of texts in English and case studies in history is crucial both in terms of how students respond to and engage with these subjects, and in creating what Victoria Elliott defines as ‘disciplinary powerful knowledge’ (2021, p. 8): the texts, sources and voices that we choose to include in our curriculums create a culture that can elevate certain values and belief systems, often at the expense of others. In their study of students aged 12 to 14, Harris and Reynolds found that ‘although many students enjoy history, they fail to fully understand its value… [Some children,] especially those from minority ethnic backgrounds, feel a lack of personal connection to the past, as they do not see themselves in the history they are taught.’ (2014, p. 46) Similarly, Barton and Levstik (2004) argue that identification is integral to the rationale for studying history; they illustrate that students need to identify with the past, at a personal, family or national level. Yet in our experience, history in UK schools has been more about identifying with a national story of progress and achievements. Likewise, in September 2020, Teach First surveyed to what extent black literature was being incorporated into the GCSE English curriculum. Their report found that ‘the biggest exam board, accounting for almost 80% of GCSE English literature entries, does not feature a single book by a Black author, and just two books by ethnic minority authors’ (2020, p. 6). Furthermore, a 2018 report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that only four per cent of children’s books published in 2017 featured a minority ethnic character and, additionally, only one per cent of those characters could be considered the main character (2018). Such findings suggest the potential for many English curriculums, like history, to exclude or entirely ignore the experiences of those students studying that very curriculum.

In order to achieve and, crucially, sustain any meaningful change when creating a diverse curriculum, it is important to have a clear pathway – one that is coherent, joined up and embedded in the culture of the department and school. Creating a diverse, challenging curriculum is important for introducing all students to a wealth of perspectives, experiences and cultures as well as in terms of representation. It was clear to us that our curriculums were no longer reflecting the students in our classrooms, which was confirmed by the data acquired from our school admissions department. Our school is an all-girls, independent secondary school with a diverse student body. We have a slightly higher than average proportion of students from minority ethnic backgrounds when comparing to the Independent Schools Council’s 2019 census, which found that 33.8 per cent of pupils who attended independent schools in the UK came from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The steps outlined below demonstrate how we approached a curriculum review in history and English; however, the process is transferable across subjects.

Step 1: Audit the current offer

Before implementing any new change, it is essential to thoroughly audit what is already in place. This not only ensures that positive elements are retained, but also enables an open and hopefully honest conversation with the whole department about why we teach what we do. Having established an accurate understanding of the demographic of our students, we used this to ensure that our new curriculum achieved the personal connections we desired. Given that we have most freedom in curriculum design at Key Stage 3, we began by critically evaluating what topics, case studies and texts we currently taught and what cumulative narrative was created through the teaching of those. Using Paul Washington-Miller’s definition of an inclusive curriculum as one ‘which provides all students regardless of background and immutable characteristics with an equal opportunity to achieve the learning outcomes of their programme’ (Washington-Miller and Maharasingam, 2020), we questioned to what extent our Key Stage 3 curriculum achieved this. We were mindful of the potential danger of making changes as a tokenistic gesture; our route to avoid this was to create a multidirectional narrative that embedded diversity rather than ‘tacked it on’ (Dennis, 2016).

Step 2: Establish shared goals

In both departments, we knew that a clear rationale and set of outcomes was essential from the outset. As such, open discussion and agreeing shared goals and a vision for the curriculum with our departments formed the bedrock of our path to change; in our departments, we created lists of non-negotiables, desirables and absolute nots, cross-referencing this list with the findings of the audit to identify the gaps. This gave us a structure for what was needed next. We knew that we wanted to create what Bennie Kara calls a ‘culturally connected curriculum’ as ‘a far better way to promote diversity’ than just including content relating to minority ethnic experiences ‘with no other purpose than to pay lip service to representation’ (2021, pp. 46–47). Therefore, we knew that a tokenistic inclusion of diversity was not only misplaced in terms of its pedagogical value but it actually had the potential to further the ‘othering’ of these narratives and, by extension, the students in our classrooms.

Step 3: Design alternatives

Based on these discussions, we moved to design alternative curriculum models. It was essential that the whole department in both subjects were a part of this and, as such, models were discussed and refined before reaching a consensus.

In English we were driven by a desire to ensure that our curriculum was led by an aggregation of skills and knowledge, rather than text choice; in our minds, the texts needed to remain the vehicle rather than the driver. Our three principles when choosing high-quality texts were that: 1) they were the best placed to enable students to learn and practise the chosen core skill, 2) they were accessible to the class and year group, and 3) students heard and saw themselves in the literature. Putting these principles into practice, our Year 9 Term 1 unit teaches Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet concurrently with Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, enabling students to appreciate the structure of tragedy across genres. This exemplifies the development of a multidirectional narrative in English through which students can appreciate the ways in which texts ‘talk’ to one another, creating a tapestry of global literary heritage.

In history, we wanted the Key Stage 3 offer to be a coherent global history across the three years and for students to clearly see the importance of chronology and themes over time, as well as keeping an enquiry question-based approach. Figure 1 shows how we implement this. The guiding principle was to establish a multidirectional memory of history, using diverse examples and case studies to enrich what is taught consistently throughout the three years. For example, in our study of the medieval world, we take the students on a journey of experiences and practices in Britain, Europe and then the wider world. With the topics established, we turned to plan our assessments. We ensured that all narratives were assessed like for like, so that the diverse stories did not become an appendage and were given the same level of importance and gravitas throughout the year (The Black Curriculum, 2020).

Figure 1: History Key Stage 3 curriculum structure

Term 1: Power, authority and people (with a GB focus) Term 2: Ideas and influences that shaped the world Term 3: Depth studies and individual exploration
Year 7:

Medieval and early modern –

c1000–1600

Why have people made Britain their home?

 

How did wider influences from around the world shape modern Europe?

 

How did empires develop around the world?

 

Year 8:

Early modern

c1600–1900

How was power challenged in this period in Great Britain?

 

What was the experience and impact of expansion and exploitation around the world?

 

How have women shaped the world we live in today?

 

Year 9:

Modern world

1900–2020

How did imperial rivalries for global power and influence develop in the modern world?

 

How and why did dictatorships emerge across the world in the 20th century?

 

How has the fight for freedom and equality progressed in the 21st century?

 

Step 4: Implement with regular review

The success of any new change implementation requires regular and honest reviewing with all stakeholders. For us, this meant gathering feedback from both staff and students. Firstly, through regular meetings with staff, we were able to assess whether the new structure was working practically in the classroom. Exclusively, the feedback was positive, largely due to the collaborative approach adopted throughout the process. Teachers were receptive to and fully engaged in the shaping of the schemes of work and specific lesson resources, which encouraged ownership of the changes.

Likewise, we invited the students to feed back on their experience of the content; this allowed us to check that we had truly embedded the multidirectional approach we set out to. Pupil voice is invaluable as part an ongoing review of our Key Stage 3 offers. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure personal connection to their learning, so an annual survey will allow us to gauge the extent to which this has been achieved. Pupils and parents commented on how much they were enjoying the reformed curriculum; indeed, in history, Year 7s and 8s talked with excitement about looking forward to the upcoming new diverse content in Year 9.

Conclusion

Rather than becoming static, the curriculum should acknowledge and respond to the realities of the world in which our students live. This is particularly important for the subjects of history and English, which invite us, as both teachers and students, to question what exactly has made us who and what we are. However, the possibilities for embedding meaningful multidirectional narratives across all subjects present an exciting opportunity. Based on our experience, middle leaders should lead such change with confidence that their departments will be supportive of this need to make bold and necessary changes.

Alexandra is currently exploring the impact of diversifying the English curriculum as part of her CTeach accreditation.

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